Striking Gold in Lucignano

December 11, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Lucignano, Tuscany

In the small main piazza, stately fortified towers, soaring like stalwart guards, bear witness to Lucignano’s bellicose past. For centuries contested in ferocious battles by nearby Arezzo, Siena, Perugia and Florence – for its fortuitous position overlooking the fertile Valdichiana – the tranquillity of tiny Lucignano (pop.just over 3000) today belies its aggressive history.

Lucignano tops a hillside

The fortifying of the town with walls by the conquering Sienese in late 14th-century followed by increased Florentine fortification mandated by Cosimo I de’ Medici, resulted in Lucignano’s characteristic elliptical shape of concentric streets, typical of citadel towns.

Lucignano medieval entrance

These “ring streets” of Lucignano merit sleuthing: after all, doesn’t every tiny Italian hilltown gem hide treasures?

And in Lucignano, we struck gold – literally.

We’d wandered the labyrinthine backstreets leading to the recently-restored 13th-c frescoes in the church of San Francesco, with characteristic black-and-white striped façade, typical of the Siena area. At the two-level building next door with a patchwork façade of local stones – the town Museo – we stopped “for a quick look.”  

Lucignano alleyway
The museum entrance -don't miss it

And here we found not just the treasure of Lucignano but one of the finest masterpieces of the medieval goldsmith tradition of the Siena/Arezzo area. L’albero della vita (the Tree of Life), one of the few phytomorphic reliquaries still existing in Italy, is a stunning and rare example of the plant-shaped – often like a tree – reliquaries cherished in ancient times. Over two meters high, this breathtaking masterpiece was designed to hold precious Franciscan relics as well as slivers of the True Cross.

Leaf loops on the Albero della Vita

Like us, you’ll probably view the golden “Tree” in stunned silence, peering at the intricacies of the embossed silver reliquary capsules, the delicate loops of golden leaves, the minute detail of the illuminated parchment images, and the twists of the forked coral branches symbolizing the blood of Christ.

Pino admires the splendor

From the golden Crucifix at the top all the way down to the golden Gothic temple with spires serving as base, un vero capolavoro (a true masterpiece).

We continued on – if reluctantly – to the adjacent room to another treasure, Signorelli’s early 16th-c painting, “San Francesco Receives the Stigmata.” (Once considered to have been the upper part of a locked cupboard holding the sacred reliquary in the adjacent San Francesco church, art historians now discount this theory.)

At least the Albero della Vita has come out of the cupboard (whether real or metaphorical) – and makes a trip to this sleepy southern Tuscan hill town a must. After all, you’ll strike gold.

Just the base is a masterpiece in its own right
Parchment detail
Detail of the embossed silver, gold leaf, coral

Tree of life reliquary

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See for more on her Umbria tours. Do see for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

25 Responses to “Striking Gold in Lucignano”

  1. Brit and Frank

    Truly a masterpiece. Thanks for calling our attention to it. Someday we hope to see it in person.

  2. Anne, Amazing, will have to make a point of wandering here next trip. Thanks so much for finding these beautiful gems.

  3. Janice Peters

    Amazing Place–Thanks for the interesting history!
    Buon Natale,


  4. Judy Pusateri

    Can’t wait to see it next time I visit Italy – it is beautiful. Merry Christmas to you and Pino!

  5. Rosemary Johnson

    Wow! So beautiful! Nice picture of Pino, too. Hope you have a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!! Hope to see you in 2015, and will write more when I get a break from teaching. Grabbing all the hours I can get now so I can visit you in the spring. Rosemary Johnson

  6. Beholding to the eye. Magnificent piece of art. Merry Christmas to you and your dear family.

  7. This is most definitely one of those silent, stunned reads…. one that really captures your attention, realizing how sacred and valuable these treasures really are— so much, that they are almost not even part of this world.
    Pino– You can see the look of silent awe, wonder, and amazement on his face! He adds great effect to the grandeur of this relic!

    What a unique discovery… simply amazing! Thank you for sharing!

  8. Mary Barbato

    Like always Anne! You find the best treasures and we are so happy when you share them with us!!!

  9. Hiram DeWitt

    Having lived in Italy for many years, and extensively explored Tuscany, this is a town I missed. Beautiful!

  10. Joan Halperin

    Italy never ceases to amaze and neither do YOU, Anne.
    Happy Holidays to all, Joan

  11. don kirchman

    How wonderful to find some “fresh faces” in central Italy (and not just Pino). you have me poised over a booking site for off season flights into Rome…

  12. Sandi Spector

    What I just love about Anne’s posts is that they are stories, not just info. That’s why we love any chance we can get to tour with her. This year, hope to catch her in the USA during her winter ‘sabbatical’ from touring to visit the USA & do talks & dinners for us all.

  13. marianna raccuglia

    Beautiful and fascinating! You have such a gift and we get to enjoy it.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family.

  14. Jenny Hannan

    This is marvellous Annie. I find this ‘chapter’ fascinating as it adds to my understanding of pre-Renaissance history. Well, well written dear Annie.

  15. Mary Cappiello

    Wow, Annie! What an amazing find! I’m saving this one as I have so many other Italian Notebook articles, so I can be sure to include them in our next Italian itinerary. Again, fabulous pictures to accompany your commentary. Loved it!


    !!!!.Thank you for generously sharing the “gems” you come across. I am always amazed at the passion you still feel after so many years of living in Italy. It is an unending love affair with you adopted country! I felt this way when you introduced us to the inimitable rose petal sculptures a few years back. Grazie lei!


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